How to & How Not to Repent: Best & Worst Practices

repent_kellerThis post is meant to offer guidance to common “what now” questions that could emerge from Pastor Raudel’s sermon “Bear Fruit: Repentance – Psalm 51,” preached at The Summit Church Saturday-Sunday June 10-11, 2017.

How to Repent

There is no formula for repentance. The six points below are merely meant to help you experience the full redemptive impact of repentance. In this sense, repentance and God’s forgiveness can be like a smart phone. They have many features that we may not know are present or how to utilize. When we buy the phone, we get them all; but we do not get the full benefit of them until we realize they’re there and how to use them.

After each point, we will offer an area of self-assessment. These questions are meant to help you determine whether you are placing yourself in a position to receive the benefits God intends to provide through each aspect of repentance.

1. A desire to live for God and submit to His Lordship.

Repentance does not begin with remorse. If that were the case, then we would be saying the cure for guilt begins with feeling worse.

Repentance begins with a genuine desire to submit to God’s Lordship out of trust for His character. Repentance begins with the belief that what God wants for us is actually what is best. We trust God to lead our lives more than ourselves.

When we see God’s ways as best, we are sorry we strayed from them, but this remorse is not “icky” like shame; instead it is like the sense of reunion with a trusted friend after you realize you were wrongly upset with them and they graciously embrace the friendship again.

  • Self-Assessment: Are you surrendering to the Lordship of Christ because you trust his love for you or are you primarily seeking relief from unpleasant emotions and destructive habits?

2. An understanding of how our sin sought to replace God.

It is not just actions or distorted motives for which we repent. We repent for having replaced God with ourselves. 

The idols that fuel our sin want to control all of our lives; to interpret all the events and people in our lives. Repentance acknowledges this false worship as an affront to God and wants him to have his rightful place in our lives; allowing God to again rightly interpret the events and people in our lives.

  • Self-Assessment: Are you able to see the “against God” nature of your sin?

3. Brokenness over the nature of our sin.

A healthy life begins with recognizing our fallen human condition. Ultimately we sin because we are sinners. The myriad of factors that led to our sin are not the root cause. The root is that our nature has been distorted by the Fall (1 Cor. 15:21-22).

True repentance is not just sorrow over particular idols or behavioral failures but brokenness over our condition as a sinful person. When we acknowledge our depravity, we gain an accurate self-assessment that motivates us to perpetually rely on God. Realizing this is the perpetual need of every person allows for a non-shame-based honesty in which a real relationship with God can thrive.

Repentance is what allows you not to have to be either fake or fatalistic about your short-comings and perpetual struggles. Repentance allows you to be honest and have hope at the same time.

  • Self-Assessment: Do you resist seeing yourself and allowing yourself to be known as someone who is in perpetual need of God’s sustaining grace?

4. Expression to God.

After sin, our pride or fear causes us to hide from God rather than talk to God (Gen. 3:8). Too often we think that a directionless sense of regret for sin is the same thing as repenting to God.

You will not feel restored to God as long as you are avoiding God because of your sin. It does no good to address your repentance “to whom it may concern.” Any ambiguously addressed repentance is little more than talking to yourself differently. Talk to God when you repent so that you can know His response to your repentance.

  • Self-Assessment: Have you talked to God in your repentance? If not, might it be that your repentance seems ineffective because the “no one” you spoke to can have no power to forgive or comfort?

5. Faith in God’s willingness to forgive.

Repentance is an expression of faith. We come to God with nothing to offer in exchange for forgiveness. If we do not believe God will freely forgive, we will continue in our “try harder” or “hide more effectively” approaches that allowed our sin to fester.

All this does is inadvertently reinforce the false beliefs that our sin is good and God is mean. Unless we believe that God is willing to forgive on the basis of His grace and Christ’s death, then repentance becomes a form of penance that is more like putting peace in layaway than receiving a gift.

  • Self-Assessment: How do you view God (i.e., expression on His face, posture of His body, tones when He speaks, words that He says, gestures of His hands) when you come to God in repentance?

6. New direction of life usually expressed first by confession (to those we’ve offended and other Christians for accountability).

Repentance is our part of entering into or recommitting to a covenant relationship (i.e., like marriage) with God. This is why sin is frequently called spiritual adultery. 

Repentance is our vow-renewal ceremony that expresses our renewed commitment to covenant fidelity. Marriage ceremonies and vow renewals are not done in private. They are public declarations of who has our ultimate allegiance. This parallels why repentance doesn’t remain private. It is also expressed through confession.

  • Self-Assessment: Does it startle you to think of repentance as a vow-renewal ceremony? How does that image extend the implications of repentance beyond the moment of prayer?

How Not to Repent

The recognition that there are healthy and unhealthy forms of repentance is both common sense and biblical (2 Corinthians 7:8-13). On this everyone agrees; secular and sacred. The difficulty is in discerning disingenuous repentance. Mature and discerning people can witness the same conversation and walk away with distinctly different impressions about whether a given expression of remorse represents genuine repentance, sorrow for being caught, or a tactic to gain relational leverage.

In this post, I hope to accomplish two things. First, I will attempt to clarify two common misperceptions about manipulation. Second, I will discuss a series of phrases commonly used in repentance which can be red flags that the remorse being expressed will not lead to healthy relational restoration.

Misperception #1:

Manipulation is about motive (why or how something is done) more than method (what is said or done). There is no way to make a list of “manipulative phrases.” Every phrase listed below has a context in which it could be legitimate and appropriate. Manipulation is about motive (resisting change, minimizing responsibility, blame-shifting, etc…) and is most effective (in a negative sense of “effectiveness”) when that phrase/action used seems legitimate.

Implication – The explanation after each phrase below will be important to understand. If the description of how each phrase can be a part of manipulative repentance does not fit a given use of that phrase, it should not be considered manipulative.

Misperception #2:

Manipulation does not require “malice aforethought” or intellectual cunning. From my experience in counseling, most people who are using remorse to gain an advantage or avoid responsibility are not aware, in the moment, of what they’re doing. They just want to escape the discomfort of the moment. This driving desire (i.e., to escape) shapes the way they define words and frame questions.

In reality, that is what manipulation is: manipulation is defining words and framing questions (by verbiage or emotions) in such a way that makes a healthy response from the other person seem selfish, mean, or unreasonable.

“I know I’m not perfect.”

Your expectations that I responded decently are unreasonable. You are holding me to a perfectionistic standard. In order to avoid being confronted by you, I would have to be perfect. You should feel bad for being judgmental and harsh instead of asking me to seek restoration for what I did.

“I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not.”

You knew who I was when we started this relationship so you are being unfair by expecting me to be decent. This confuses genuineness with righteousness; authenticity with holiness. By this standard, someone could be consistently hurtful and we would still be to blame for their sin because we chose to be in relationship with them.

“You are bringing up stuff from the past.”

We can only talk about events, not patterns of behaviors. Often this impasse is reached when the individual repenting is unwilling to see that the event (for instance, intoxication or belligerence) in question was part of a larger pattern (i.e., addiction or abusive speech). If there is a pattern of behavior and this pattern goes unacknowledged, then the level of efforts towards change will be inadequate to produce the necessary change.

“You know I am not the kind of person who would do that… that is not what I meant.”

Your experience of me is not an accurate depiction of reality. My self-perception and intentions are truer than your experience. These phrases leave the person repenting in charge of defining the event for which forgiveness is being sought. The intent /self-perception of the sinner is being imposed as a limit on the pain of the one sinned against. The result is that the offended person has less voice in describing their pain. The offending person remains in charge of the narrative.

“I said I was sorry. What more do you want from me? What more can I do?”

If anything more than my words (i.e., “I’m sorry”) are required in response to my actions, then you are being unforgiving, mean, weak, or hyper-emotional. Also, this response often implies that an apology should be met with an immediate sense of trust and equanimity in the relationship. Any lingering sense of mistrust by the offended person is then labeled as an unreasonable and ungodly form of punishment.

More use of first person pronouns (i.e., I, me, my) than second person pronouns (i.e., you, your).

While this is not a specific phrase, the excessive use of self-centered pronouns may reveal that the person repenting is focusing on their personal experience of the offense more than the impact on the person they hurt or offended. In this way, the person repenting is remaining the main character in their repentance as much as they were in their sin.

Note: First person pronouns should be used in the active / ownership part of repentance. However, in the description of the impact and aftermath of our sin, healthy repentance focuses more on the disruption we caused in the other person’s life.

“There are a lot of people / couples who have it much worse than you / we do.”

You should feel bad for complaining when the situation was not as bad as it could have been. This equates “could have been worse” with “not bad enough to mention.” It also portrays suffering as a competitive sport in which only those who suffer the worst merit sympathy for their hardship.

This phrase often comes towards the end of an unhealthy repentance conversation. Early in the conversation the repenting person minimizes or blame-shifts. When the offended party tries to clarify the degree of hurt, this is viewed as exaggeration. This perception of exaggeration leads the repenting person to use the logic of “this situation is not as bad as [more exaggerative situation].”

“I promise I will do better (without agreement about the problem or concrete examples)”

Even though I minimize and disagree with you about the past and present, you should trust what I mean when I say “better” about the future. Commitments to change are not bad, although these commitments should usually have more humility than an absolute promise. However, when commitments to do “better” are made during a disagreement about the nature of the offense, these commitments become a way to shut down communication. Again, if you don’t accept my promise, you’re being mean, unforgiving, or unreasonable.

Conclusion

Remember most expressions of manipulation are unintentional (this does not reduce culpability). Many people are unskilled at difficult communication and become unduly shaped by their own interests when they should be owning their sin.

Frequently, I have found that when a counselor can articulate the unhealthy dynamic that exists in an attempt to repent, the offending person can see the coerciveness of their attempt at reconciliation. Usually (if it’s in marriage counseling), the couple will say, “Yikes, we do this a lot. We knew it wasn’t working but we couldn’t figure out why.”

This leads to a fruitful conversation about why their past efforts at restoring conflict through the biblical process of repentance and forgiveness had been unsuccessful (or, only intermittently effective).

In other cases, where the offending spouse is more committed to their self-centeredness, these explanations are rejected as unreasonable. In these instances, helping the offended individual / spouse remain open to the possibility of a more fully restored relationship without acquiescing to the manipulative style of communication becomes the focus of counseling (example of this kind of approach here).